McCallister Opposition bill clears another hurdle, despite vetoes

MLAs spent nine hours debating and voting on John McCallister's bill
MLAs spent nine hours debating and voting on John McCallister's bill

John McCallister has rebuked nationalists for suggesting that his Opposition bill could lead to the return of majority rule, as most of the bill cleared another hurdle to becoming law.

The independent MLA saw several significant aspects of his bill vetoed by the nationalist parties or the DUP, but the bulk of the bill has survived its first line-by-line scrutiny by the Assembly and is likely to be back in the chamber for further consideration stage next week.

On Monday the Assembly spent almost two hours just voting on clauses in Mr McCallister’s bill.

In total, MLAs spent more than nine hours debating and voting on every aspect of the bill, which has already been pored over by an Assembly committee.

Sinn Fein objected to the entire bill – even though parts of it, such as renaming the First and Deputy First Ministers’ as the First Ministers, are in line with Sinn Fein policy – because the party argued that any move to an Opposition should be by changing the Assembly’s rules of procedure (standing orders) rather than through legislation.

But Sinn Fein and the SDLP were united in their opposition to Mr McCallister’s attempt to abolish the requirement for every MLA to designate as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’, along with the petition of concern system which gives both unionism and nationalism a veto, but means that the votes of Alliance or Green MLAs do not count in some key votes.

Mr McCallister proposed replacing that system with a weighted majority for controversial votes in the Assembly. He suggested the requirement of a majority somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent in such votes, something which could not be achieved without cross-community support.

Mr McCallister said he wanted to tackle the suggestion from some nationalists that “somehow the bill is a secret vehicle to get back to majoritarianism”.

“I haven’t heard anyone seriously speak for majoritarianism – apart from members of Sinn Fein, no one is advocating some sort of majority rule.

“Every single party is talking about how you build a consensus ... and have a government that’s functional and that is held to account by an opposition.”

The South Down MLA went on to say: “I was a six- week-old baby when this place collapsed in 1972; I’ve no memory whatsoever of what this place was like back then. Northern Ireland is a changed place.”

But Jim Allister pressed for a more radical reform, saying that if parties continued to be guaranteed a place in government irrespective of whether their policies were compatible, the Executive would continue to be ineffective.

He suggested that a voluntary coalition which could get its programme through the Assembly under a weighted majority vote – assuring both unionist and nationalist support – would be more stable.